June 21, 2014 – A Blast from the Past: The eruption of Mount Tambora killed thousands, plunged much of the world into a frightful chill and offers lessons for today. Note: Happy first day of Summer with the ingress of the Sun into the sign of Cancer at 3:51AM PDT.
The most destructive explosion on earth in the past 10,000 years was the eruption of an obscure volcano in Indonesia called Mount Tambora. More than 13,000 feet high, Tambora blew up in 1815 and blasted 12 cubic miles of gases, dust and rock into the atmosphere and onto the island of Sumbawa and the surrounding area. Rivers of incandescent ash poured down the mountain’s flanks and burned grasslands and forests. The ground shook, sending tsunamis racing across the Java Sea. An estimated 10,000 of the island’s inhabitants died instantly.
A year after the eruption, the effects were felt in the northeastern United States, where vital corn crops withered from killing frosts.
It’s the eruption’s far-flung consequences, however, that have most intrigued scholars and scientists. They have studied how debris from the volcano shrouded and chilled parts of the planet for many months, contributing to crop failure and famine in North America and epidemics in Europe. Climate experts believe that Tambora was partly responsible for the unseasonable chill that afflicted much of the Northern Hemisphere in 1816, known as the “year without a summer.” Tamboran gloom may have even played a part in the creation of one of the 19th century’s most enduring fictional characters, Dr. Frankenstein’s monster.
The eruption of Tambora was ten times more powerful than that of Krakatau, which is 900 miles away. But Krakatau is more widely known, partly because it erupted in 1883, after the invention of the telegraph, which spread the news quickly. Word of Tambora traveled no faster than a sailing ship, limiting its notoriety. In my 40 years of geological work I had never heard of Tambora until a couple of years ago when I started researching a book on enormous natural disasters.
Rapid cooling of burning ash that poured from the volcano formed pumice that choked harbors, disrupting trade and travel for months.
Three thousand feet deep and more than three miles across, the crater was as barren as it was vast, with not a single blade of grass in its bowl. Enormous piles of rubble, or scree, lay at the base of the steep crater walls. The floor was brown, flat and dry, with no trace of the lake that is said to collect there sometimes. Occasional whiffs of sulfurous gases warned us that Tambora is still active.
We lingered at the rim for a couple of hours, talking quietly and shaking our heads at the immensity before us. I tried to conceive of the unimaginable noise and power of the eruption, which volcanologists have classified as “super-colossal.” I would have liked to stay there much longer. When it was time to go, Rahim, knowing that I would probably never return, suggested I say good-bye to Tambora, and I did. He stood at the rim, whispering a prayer to the spirits of the mountain upon whose flanks he has lived most of his life. Then we made our descent.
Looking into that crater, and having familiarized myself with others’ research on the consequences of the eruption, I saw as if for the first time how the planet and its life-forms are linked. The material that it ejected into the atmosphere perturbed climate, destroyed crops, spurred disease, made some people go hungry and others migrate. Tambora also opened my eyes to the idea that what human beings put into the atmosphere may have profound impacts. Interestingly, scientists who study global climate trends use Tambora as a benchmark, identifying the period 1815 to 1816 in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica by their unusually high sulfur content—signature of a great upheaval long ago and a world away. (Credits – the Smithsonian Institute).
The Master of Disaster